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  • Writer's pictureKevan Oswald

Anchors, Halos & Triggers

One of the first rules of big box office monster movies is to not reveal the full horror of the creature until the movie is well under way. We catch a glimpse or a hint of it here and there, and then when the time is right, we finally see all of it in dramatic fashion. Jaws comes to mind as a classic example. The fact that we didn’t really see the whole shark until late in the movie made its appearance much more emotionally satisfying then if it had come bursting out of the water in the opening seen.

Like a good monster movie or mystery novel, good ads sometimes intentionally leave something out, creating curiosity. They engage the customer by holding back. The ad then allows the viewer/listener a flash of emotional satisfaction when the pieces finally come together and resolve. This positive emotion is then linked to the product. Apple's recent "Shot on iPhone" campaign is a good example.

It’s easy for anyone to include a lot of stuff in an ad, but it takes great skill to know how to exclude stuff, and how to do it in such a way that the viewer/listener fills in the gap themselves, triggering a small neurochemical rush from the reward circuits of the brain.

Creating emotional satisfaction through this “resolved curiosity” is one method for influencing thought patterns associated with a product or brand. However, resolved curiosity isn’t the only way to subtly influence how people feel about your product. My three favorites are anchors, halos, and triggers.


As the term implies, anchors hold us to something. They are expectations about how things should be. In the case of marketing, it may be how much we believe something should cost, or a belief about the quality of a brand, or even a stereotype we believe in. Whatever the case, anchors are formed in our mind based off of past experience and information. These mental anchors may be correct, they may be totally false, or somewhere in-between.

Pulling up and resetting anchors can be difficult, sometimes nearly impossible. This is why getting it right the first time is so important. This is especially true with price.

When we encounter a product or service that we know little about, the number one thing that will tell us its value is the price. In fact, that’s often all we have to go off of. We assume that price equates to value, and for the most part that holds true…but not always. In a well-known experiment, a group researchers demonstrated that a group people who consumed an expensive glass of wine reported that it tasted better than did another group of people who consumed a much cheaper glass of wine. However, unbeknownst to the participants, in both cases the wine was identical. It was only the perception that was different. They set a mental anchor of quality based off of the only piece of information they had, the price.


The halo effect is more well-known than anchoring. Essentially the halo effect is using the brand equity of a strong product or service to strengthen another product or service. We all know that new products fail far more often then they succeed. Even when they are superior in every way. Imagine the chance of success a new cereal called Reggie’s Puffs would have on the supermarket shelves. Now substitute Reese’s for Reggie’s, add the orange and brown color that we all know so well, and the chance of success goes from the single digits to all but a sure thing.

The idea of course is to associate your product or service with something most people already believe to be awesome. It could be a celebrity, a strong brand, an event, a place, anything that your target market really really likes. On a conscious level we would like to think that the association doesn’t influence us, but subconsciously we can’t help it. We are wired to instinctively make assumptions about the quality of something based on its association with other things.

Halo’s also offer us decision making shortcuts. Often the amount of information available about a product or service makes it too difficult for us to rationally evaluate every choice placed before us without significant effort. If you’re in the market for a new TV, for example, there may be dozens of different factors to consider when trying to decide on the best model. Some of us may invest the time required to research everything, but most will look for a clue or shortcut that will help us decide which TV is the best one for us. Maybe the brand name is all we need. Maybe an endorsement from a celebrity pushes us in the right direction. Maybe we have enough faith in the retailer, online reviews, or even the salesperson to simply trust their recommendation. The halo extends from the trust we have in them to the TV and the sale is made.


Like a string tied around a finger, triggers automatically remind us of something. I remember a radio ad from years ago with the following jingle at the end of each commercial, “When you hear the crash…think of Jones Paint and Glass.” The company’s not so subtle objective was to teach your brain to automatically think of them “when you hear the crash” of a broken window. Broken windows aren’t especially common, so I don’t know how successful this was, but the idea was to create top of mind for their service by establishing a trigger that was designed to go off in your mind at the sound of breaking glass.

Every brand wants to be the first one thought of and triggers are an effective way to get there. Chili’s jingle for baby back ribs a few years ago was so successful that most people couldn’t say the words “baby back ribs” in any situation without the jingle automatically going off in their head.

Or what about Geico’s “hump day” commercial a couple of years back? Every Wednesday it became nearly impossible for people to say the word “hump day” without using the same tone and voice inflection as the camel in the commercial. Consequently we couldn’t help but think of the Geico brand whenever Wednesday came around and somebody at the office said the words “hump day.”

Advertisements that are packed full of messy white noise, like those for a used car dealership, typically make no effort to apply anchors, halos, or triggers. Instead they show the monster in the opening scene in a half-baked attempt to get us excited about whatever “amazing” deal they have going on. Problem is we’ve seen the same monster a hundred times before. This type of advertising doesn’t take a lot of skill or research. That’s why it’s so common. But that’s not how winning brands are built. The strength of a brand exists only in the consumers mind. Anchors, halos, and triggers target consumer’s minds on a deeper level than shouting about incredible never before seen deals. The result is a lasting effect that automatically and positively impacts the brand on an emotional level.

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